George Friedman examines Pakistan’s complex and troubled relationship with religion and extremism, and the steps being taken to protect the country’s religious minorities.
Christians constitute just 1 per cent of Pakistan’s population, and like so many minority populations the world over, sometimes they suffer for their beliefs. On March 28 this year, a suicide bomber in Pakistan killed at least 72 people, the most deadly attack in the South Asian nation in 15 months. The attack took place at Lahore’s Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park, where families had gathered to celebrate Easter. Among the dead were 29 children. A spokesman for Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a militant faction formerly allied with the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility, adding that the group had specifically targeted Christians. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar’s involvement would be in keeping with its past behaviour: Last year, it attacked two churches, resulting in 14 deaths.
This latest attack is emblematic of an intensifying clash of ideologies between Pakistan’s liberal and conservative institutions over the rights of religious minorities. On February 29, Islamabad took a bold step towards reform by executing the man responsible for the death of Salman Taseer, the former governor of Punjab. A progressive Muslim, Taseer had criticised the country’s longstanding blasphemy laws, and his outspokenness so angered his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, that Qadri killed Taseer, only to be sentenced to death for his crime.
Large crowds of people protested against Qadri’s execution, and some 2,000 protesters camped outside the National Assembly building in Islamabad, their presence a reminder of the deep-rooted emotions tied to religion and blasphemy in Pakistan and the challenges politicians face when pushing for reform.
The explanation behind Pakistan’s uneasy relationship with religion and extremism is complex, partly because of the unfinished legacy of the country’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Historians continue to debate the intentions of Jinnah’s vision for Pakistan. Many claim he foresaw a nation not fashioned around the principles of religion, but one built upon the ideals of secularism, in which the rights of minorities would be protected—even if Muslims formed the majority.
Jinnah did not live long enough to bring his vision, such as it was, to life, and his successors had the unenviable task of constructing a coherent national identity in a geographically contested state. Still,
For a variety of reasons, the military general staff were elevated above civilian leaders, who in turn foisted an Islamic identity upon Pakistan to unite the country’s disparate ethnic groups under the banner of religion. It is worth mentioning that these generals were empowered by the United States, which, along with Saudi Arabia, funnelled more than $6 billion to Pakistan’s president, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. In turn, Pakistan’s most zealous religious leader went on to train, arm and dispatch an army of mujahideen to fight America’s most vehement foe: the Communists.
A consequence of empowering the military was the strengthening of the country’s extremist elements. Jihadist proxies were used to gain influence in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Islamabad wanted to manage the extremists so that they would serve only the military’s purposes. Instead, radicals who had long gnawed away at the fringes of the Muslim faith were finally validated for their beliefs. Meanwhile, the Manichean logic of the Cold War meant that Washington’s strategic concerns trumped the notion of separating church and state, so US dollars continued to flow into the coffers of a ruler who explicitly sought to meld religion with politics. The Soviet Union may be gone, but the politicisation of religion in Pakistan remains, and it has turned a faith that was once soft and tolerant into something harder and intransigent, something conducive to the rise of today’s extremists.
Yet cooler heads are attempting to prevail. In February, the province of Sindh passed a bill that would enable its minority Hindu population to register their marriages with the state for the first time ever. In March, Islamabad passed a resolution recognising Easter as well as the Hindu holidays of Diwali and Holi as public holidays. Ironically, attacks such as the one in Lahore empower the one institution most capable of addressing them: the military. On March 28, Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif authorised the Pakistani army to launch a fresh wave of operations into Punjab, expanding the military’s powers to conduct raids and interrogations. This expansion follows the beginning of the final phase of the anti-militant Operation Zarb-e-Azb, launched on February 15 in the country’s restive western region. The attack in Lahore, however, shows just how much work remains.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has work to do too. Seeking to apply a nimble touch, guided by prudence and caution, Sharif is playing the long game. But until the work is finished, attacks on minorities will periodically rattle the conscience of a complex and divided nation in which both insurgent and reformer are Pakistani and Muslim.